Chef Tom Ramsey and I were drinking bourbon in someone’s kitchen in Jackson, Mississippi, having feasted on steaks with brown butter. “We need to go on a pilgrimage,” he said, topping up both our glasses. “I know a guy at Buffalo Trace. They’re making the real Holy Grail bourbons now —Pappy Van Winkle, J.T. Stagg, E.H. Taylor. He can get us into the inner sanctums. We need to do this.”
We were both far too busy for such an indulgent lark. I had a toddler at home and writing deadlines coming at me like hailstones. Tom was juggling a small empire of cooking gigs, TV appearances, festivals, food writing and restaurant schemes. But sometimes you’ve just got to break loose and let it all blow in the wind. We carved away at our schedules, and came up with four days for a road trip to the sacred heart of bourbon country.
Tom comes from a good old family in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Like many chefs, he has powerful appetites, and he brims over with energy, ideas, stories and wisecracks. At 4am one cruel morning, he texted to say he was parked on my street, at a discreet distance so the dogs wouldn’t bark and wake up my wife and daughter. I peeked in on them. Farewell my sleeping angels. I’ll be back in a few days and probably stinking of bourbon.
“I come from a good old family in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. We used to make Glenlivet whiskey until we produced a religious fool in our primary lineage. He went off to the Isle of Eigg to become a minister and gave away the distillery to a distant cousin, refusing to sell it because that would mean profiting by the ‘heathen drink.'”
I grew up in London, England, and now live in Mississippi, which has switched my primary allegiance from Scotch to bourbon. I had overindulged somewhat the night before, and clambering into Tom’s car, I felt like a piece of warmed-over roadkill. In addition to a hangover, I had a vicious sore throat, a hacking cough, and I hadn’t slept well in weeks. Nonetheless, as we pulled away from the house, and merged on to the interstate, I felt a rush of elation and high spirits. What a wonderfully irresponsible thing to be doing.
Driving from Jackson to Memphis, waiting for the dawn to appear, I nursed a supersized cup of abysmal coffee while Tom told stories about his Dad’s hunting camp in the Mississippi Delta. There was a rough-hewn code of honor. Staggering acts of masculinity were performed with horse and gun and rope. A poacher named Blue Jack was roughly captured and put on trial by a florid, stem-winding prosecutor. As the dark fields slipped by, we wondered how to take these ingredients and blend them into a short story or novel. Cooking and writing have more than a few similarities.
Breakfast was a choice between a banana or a grim-looking sausage biscuit wrapped up in greasy plastic. I thought wistfully of French truck stops with their perfect omelets and potatoes fried in goose fat, and the marvelous grilled sweetbreads at country gas stations in Argentina. But we were at a small truckstop in western Tennessee, and the specialty of the house was knives and swords. They were displayed in revolving Perspex cases, and ornamented with death heads, snakes, dragons and Confederate emblems.
We drove on for Kentucky and crossed the state line — ‘Unbridled Spirit – Home of Abraham Lincoln’ — in time for lunch. Tom belongs to a nationwide cyber-network of chefs, and he beamed out the vital question: where to eat lunch in Bowling Green, KY? In just a few moments, the replies started coming back, and they strongly favored a barbecue joint called the Smoky Pig.
It sits across a four-lane highway from a strip club housed in a metal storage barn. The parking lot was encouragingly packed with cars and pick-ups. Inside, there was a small counter hatch — you had to stoop to lean through it — and a confusing menu spelled out in red press-in letters on an off-white board. There were choices between “sprinkled,” “dipped,” and “double dipped.” A customer ahead of us said, “Dip it, side of hot.”
It was a sub-species of barbecue that neither of us had encountered before.
They call it “Monroe style” because it hails from Monroe County, Kentucky, and has never strayed more than forty miles from its birthplace. Strictly speaking, it’s not barbecue at all, but thin steaks of pork shoulder grilled slowly over charcoal until they dry out slightly. The flavor is wonderfully concentrated, smoky and meaty, and you eat it dipped or sprinkled with a hot spicy vinegar sauce.
Tom was disappointed to see me cutting out the fat. “That’s the best part,” he said. Tom adores and worships fat in all its forms, and he considers my preference for lean meat to be a disastrous character failing. On this occasion, he shamed me into eating the rinds and globs on my plate. They were tasty, alright, but afterwards, the grease clung in my mouth, and lay heavy in my stomach. In Kentucky in the frontier days, or so I had read somewhere, people ate so much pork fat that it would clog their throats. At mealtimes, even small children were served corn whiskey to cut through the congealing fat, and now I felt the need for a similar digestif.
Tom drove us to the Corsair distillery in an old department store on Bowling Green’s central square. He had served the Corsair absinthe and aggressively botanical gins at his last restaurant, and he was anxious to taste their newly-made whiskeys. The company is run by a group of youngish bearded men who come out of the craft beer movement, and are now bringing the same wackiness and reckless experimentation to artisanal distilling.
“Corsairs were pirates who gave kickbacks to the government to keep operating, and that’s basically what we’re doing in regards to liquor laws and taxes,” said our confident young guide, as he led us back through the stills, pipes and barrels. One of the stills is named Cartman, after the South Park character. “We like a lot of silliness, and we’re all about making something different,” he said. They were distilling a quinoa whiskey, at the request of a vegan employee, and another that was infused with hops. “When it comes to hops, we like to get assaulted and left in the alley,” he said cheerfully.
“There is something sacred and time-honored about the noble drink of whiskey, and it doesn’t need reinventing as something new, fun, and different.”
I could sense my Scottish ancestors rolling in their graves, and their disapproval seeped into me. After the tour, some of my suspicions were confirmed at the tasting bar. The Triple Smoke whiskey was smoked within an inch of its life. The quinoa whiskey tasted of cloying soap, just as unrinsed quinoa does. Following an Instagram mention by Gwyneth Paltrow, however, it became one of Corsair’s biggest sellers.
My favorite was the Ryemageddon, which was rich, bold, profound and peppery like a good rye whiskey should be. Tom was far more open-minded about the novel flavors, and he walked out of there with a bottle of Graniac, a nine-grain bourbon with a baking spice finish like Christmas in July.
We got back on the road and marveled at the frequency of adult stores on the Bible Belt highways of Kentucky. We passed a large plastic cow on a hillside, a life-sized T-Rex advertising a dinosaur park, and the Hill of Terror, Kentucky’s only haunted paintball facility. Then we started seeing signs to bourbon distilleries, and soon arrived in Bardstown, the self-proclaimed Bourbon Capital of the World.
“It’s a quaint old town of limestone and red brick dating back to the 1700s. The air smells of fermenting mash and bourbon fumes from the nearby distilleries.”
We found all manner of whiskey memorabilia for sale in the gift shops and boutiques, but it proved maddeningly difficult to get a drink. There was a nice little tasting bar at the Kentucky Bourbon Marketplace, but it was closed for day. Another excellent-looking bar was shuttered for good. We wandered the streets in increasing desperation. “Why is it so hard to find a glass of bourbon in the bourbon capital of the world?” said Tom.
Finally, someone steered us to the Old Talbott Tavern, a good, solid, no-nonsense bar in a 1779 building. It had a vast selection of bourbons and ryes, including some rare super premiums like the 23-year-old Pappy Van Winkle, retailing for $100 a shot. Over the last eight years or so, bourbon connoisseurs have gone collectively insane over Pappy Van Winkle — the oldest, and allegedly the best bourbon of all. A single bottle sells for $3,000 on the open market.
It was way out of our budget, so we drank some Noah’s Mill, Rowan’s Creek and Russell Rye, of all which were extremely satisfactory. Now solid nourishment was called for, and Tom was determined to find fried chicken. The waitress recommended a place called Kurtz’s, and we instantly thought of Colonel Kurtz, the deranged Belgian ivory trader in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, transposed to Vietnam in Apocalypse Now. Would the restaurant be themed after Conrad’s book? Would we eat fried chicken surrounded by human skulls on poles?
Slightly chagrined, we found ourselves at an old stone building with a sign reading ‘Famous For Quality Since 1937.” We greeted by a sweet, gracious Kentucky lady named Toogie, who led us into a chintzy little dining room that was precisely opposite to what we had imagined.
“Her staff brought us pimiento cheese and crackers, followed by excellent fried chicken which we devoured like savage beasts.”
After dinner, Tom marched into the kitchen to congratulate the cooks, and Toogie revealed her connection to bourbon royalty. I had seen the name Booker’s on a well-regarded brand of high-proof bourbon. Now I learned that Bookie Noe, distiller emeritus and Jim Beam’s grandson, had been a dear old friend of Toogie’s. “He was a huge, humongous person,” she said. “He died three years ago. I went to Australia with him, and chose the recipe for one of his whiskeys.”
We had sobered up at Kurtz’s, and I felt utterly wretched and exhausted as we walked into our AirBnB. It was a nice little apartment decorated in a style that Tom described as “early American divorcée. ” There were perfectly folded hand-towels, and inspiring mottos hung on the walls in decorative frames. I went straight to bed, clearing away a great herd of cushions first, but I couldn’t switch off my mind. It kept psyching me out of the sleep I needed so desperately.
A few well-aimed shots of Graniac put a stop to that nonsense. Drifting away into merciful oblivion, I felt nothing but love and gratitude for those wacky hipsters at the Corsair distillery.
We had a 9am appointment with Tom’s connection at Buffalo Trace, and were short on time for breakfast. My phone found a diner nearby, in a sad little shopping plaza between a low-budget church and a barbershop. At the next table, the local coroner and his crew were tucking into ham and eggs and discussing the tragic events of the night before.
“I’d say he must have been moving pretty good. He come out of there clear on over to the fence rail…”
“Burned him up pretty good.”
It lent a macabre, surreal air to an otherwise ordinary breakfast. The Buffalo Trace distillery was just up the road. Founded in 1880, it’s the oldest continually operating distillery in Kentucky; during Prohibition they made “medicinal alcohol,” which could be obtained with a doctor’s prescription. It gets its name from the buffalo herds that would cross the Kentucky river here, on a trail or “trace” leading west, until they were exterminated from Kentucky by white settlers and hunters and a growing market for hides.
It had been nine years since Tom last visited, and in that time, worldwide demand for bourbon whiskey had skyrocketed, especially in Asia. The old distillery now had a swanky new visitor center. The staff whizzed around in shiny golf carts. Gardens had been planted, buildings freshly painted.
Last time he was here, Kris Comstock, the director of marketing, also worked part-time in the gift shop, and was able to while away an afternoon drinking Holy Grail whiskeys with Tom. Now he was a very busy man. Tall, big-shouldered and bright-eyed, a former linebacker for the University of Kentucky, he stood there like a mountain in a green polo shirt, and gave us twenty minutes, talking about the craziness of the Pappy Van Winkle phenomenon, and the challenges of the time-lag in the whiskey business.
“How many barrels of each product should we make?” he said. “That’s always the big question, because it won’t reach the market for 8, or 12, or even 23 years. Right now, demand is through the roof, and we’re wishing we’d put a lot more whiskey in barrels 10 years ago.”
Then he dispatched us on a tour of the distillery with a guide named Fred Mozenter. He was a retired liquor store owner with a Dale Earnhardt tattoo and a deep knowledge of fine aged bourbon, which is the only liquor he will allow to pass his lips. I had assumed that secret recipes honed by master distillers were the key thing in making a really special bourbon, but that wasn’t the case at all. Pappy Van Winkle, for example, is made from exactly the same recipe as Old Weller, a nice-enough bourbon that you can buy for around $20. The superior quality of the Pappy comes entirely from its long slow ageing in the coolest part of distillery.
Normally, the tasting bar is the highlight of a distillery tour. At Buffalo Trace, it was a gut-punch. The rare, small-batch, Holy Grail bourbons we had come to taste were locked up in a glass cabinet behind the bar. There, taunting us, were venerable bottles of Pappy Van Winkle, Colonel E.H. Taylor, Elmer T. Lee, George T. Stagg — all of them named after master distillers now drinking whiskey in heaven. Fred Mozenter could only pour us Eagle Rare and Buffalo Trace, which were standard items in my home liquor cabinet. Even the gift shop had barren shelves where the special stuff was supposed to be. The distillery was running out.
Tom put in a call to Kris Comstock, fully explaining the nature of our pilgrimage, and asking if there was anything he could do. This fine Kentucky gentleman, this prince among men, told us to come back later, whereupon he smuggled us into the tasting labs. Scientists in lab coats were working with test tubes and bottles and wall charts. Professional tasters were hard at work, checking for barrel variation. In the far corner, there was a small tasting station with some very enticing bottles lined up.
Kris poured us a thimble of hot, powerful, experimental rye. Then he tasted us on a new bourbon product aged in French oak, which gave it an intriguing brandy undertone. Then pointed to the bottles and asked if there was anything we wanted to taste. “The Pappy 20-year,” I said, wanting to see what all the fuss was about. Old Pappy himself was smoking a long cigar on the label.
“It was so dark, rich, dense and delicious that it sent a physical rush of pleasure up the back of my neck and across my scalp.”
An inadvertent grin spread across my face. I couldn’t think of any other liquor that delivered such a powerful wallop of sensory delight, and the finish went on and on, shifting and blending with notes of leather, caramel, smoke, coffee and other things I couldn’t name. If I was stinking rich, I now understood, this is exactly what I’d spend my money on.
That night we roistered in Louisville, starting with bourbon-and-champagne cocktails at the grand old Seelbach Hotel, where F. Scott Fitzgerald had to be forcibly ejected one night after over-imbibing. Rather than hold a grudge, he immortalized the hotel in The Great Gatsby. Tom and Daisy were married here. Al Capone drunk bourbon too, and JFK, although not at the same time.
Tom secured us a table at 610 Magnolia, where the famous Korean-American chef Edward Lee combines traditional southern ingredients with Asian spices and techniques. Because chefs spoil each other, as a matter of honor, we were greeted with two shots of Jefferson’s Ocean Reserve, an expensive bourbon aged on long sea voyages. It sounds like a marketing gimmick, but the whiskey was a revelation, as smooth and fine as an old cognac with a slight saltiness.
After a spectacular seven-course meal, Ed Lee sat down with us and talked bourbon. “I love the top end stuff, but let’s not forget that bourbon, especially in Kentucky, is really a working man’s drink, drunk every day.” To prove his point, he took us to a dive bar called Freddie’s in Old Louisville. Ed Lee had been kicked out of it once, for the crime of ordering a Manhattan.
Somehow it seemed a fitting end to our journey and a stripping away of all our pretensions. We drank $4 shots of Old Grandad while the jukebox blared rock anthems, and people blundered around starting drunken conversations and arguments. Ed Lee ordered another round and said with a wide flushed grin on his face, “You’re in Kentucky now, bitches.”
Written by Richard Grant
Photography by Scott Speakes